In the vast universe of tennis players, precious few know what it's like to face Maria Sharapova on Wimbledon's Center Court. So when Venus Williams drew that tall order, pitted against the Russian teen in a Wimbledon semifinal Thursday, her baby sister Serena was quick to e-mail from across the Atlantic to share a bit of tactical insight and to remind her big sister, above all: "You're the best."
That fundamental truth had gotten lost on tennis fans as injury and apparent indifference sent Venus Williams tumbling in the world rankings the past two years. It had gotten lost on Wimbledon officials, who seeded Williams 14th. And it seemed to have gotten lost on Williams herself, who, despite four Grand Slam titles, had lost confidence in her record-setting serve and once powerful groundstrokes and, with it, the aura of intimidation that made opponents shrink before the first ball was hit.
In a single match, Williams roared back Thursday to reacquaint the world with her brilliance, shredding Sharapova, 7-6 (7-2), 6-1, to advance to her first Wimbledon final in two years.
Tennis analysts had gushed about how Sharapova had blossomed since defeating Serena Williams to win Wimbledon as a 17-year-old, returning to defend her title a stronger, more self-assured player. But Venus Williams blew her away like a dandelion, bombarding her with 120-mph serves, pounding her into a defensive crouch with groundstrokes that knocked her behind the baseline and thrashing service returns to break her five times.
As a result, a Williams sister will appear in Wimbledon's final for a sixth consecutive year. And suddenly, women's tennis has gotten interesting again.
The question of Williams's opponent in Saturday's final hangs in the balance after rain halted play in Thursday's other semifinal, with American Lindsay Davenport four points from victory over Amelie Mauresmo of France. The match will resume at 1 p.m. Friday (8 a.m. EDT). Though the top-seeded Davenport holds a 6-7 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4), 5-3 lead, victory is far from certain. Davenport is a notoriously slow starter.
But at 29, she would love the chance to add a second Wimbledon title and fourth Grand Slam to her resume before retiring. Should she defeat Mauresmo, considered the best female player without a Grand Slam title, it would mark a reprise of Wimbledon's 2000 final, in which Williams defeated Davenport, the 1999 champion, for her first Wimbledon crown.
It was nearly 5:39 p.m. when Williams and Sharapova walked onto Center Court after a lengthy rain delay.
While Sharapova had breezed through the early rounds, Williams was a work in progress. Sharapova had become the media's obsession, fielding daily questions about her hobbies, love life and favorite outfits; Williams remained happily aloof, deftly deflecting questions about how much she practiced, how she prepared or how much she wanted to be great again. All she wanted, Williams said, was to improve each round.
And she did -- first by baby steps; then, after Serena's shocking third-round loss to unseeded Jill Craybas, by giant steps.
Williams avenged Serena's loss by dismissing Craybas, 6-0, 6-2. On Thursday, she set her sights on Sharapova.
Williams knocked Sharapova back on the heels of her golden-flecked tennis shoes from the start, hammering her with groundstrokes that smacked the baseline and serves that nicked the corners. There was no venom in her play -- just relentless intensity.
"It doesn't matter who's across the net," Williams explained afterward. "It doesn't matter what they hit. It's all about you; it's all about what you're going to do. It's about you focusing on what your plan is, and doing the right thing."
Williams broke Sharapova in the sixth game and built a 5-2 lead before the Russian stormed back. At 6 feet 1 and 6-0 respectively, Williams and Sharapova are more limbs than anything. They can bound from the baseline to the net in two or three strides. And they're strong enough to wallop the ball with tremendous pace, even when lunging for a shot off-balance.
Though they could dominate at the net, both prefer to dictate from the baseline. And they poured everything they had into the effort, yanking each other from one corner to the other until someone coughed up an error.
Sharapova managed to break back with some blistering cross-court passing shots to save two set points at 5-4. But errors doomed her in the tiebreaker, which she lost, 7-2.
Williams's focus didn't waver in the second set, and neither did her groundstrokes.
After rolling to a 5-1 lead, Williams flubbed one match point by misjudging a backhand volley. Sharapova's inconsistency soon gave Williams another opportunity. And when the match was over, Williams flung both arms to the sky, turned and stared at her parents in disbelief and broke into a glorious smile.
A congratulatory message from Serena was waiting when she finally trotted off the court. And Venus fired off an e-mail in response that read, "I just wanted to be like you."